Murdoch launches the debate: will we pay for news on the net?

News International reveals plan to charge £2-a-week for online access to newspapers
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The Independent Online

"Adios. Give me a call when you're free again," posted Jeannine Steward on Times Online yesterday, shortly after Rupert Murdoch's News International announced that from June it would be charging £2 a week for access to the websites of The Times and The Sunday Times.

The introduction of this internet paywall, first announced by Mr Murdoch last August as he suffered the humiliation of posting a huge annual loss for his global media empire, is a step into the unknown for the most famous newspaper mogul of them all.

Since then, his henchmen have been working overtime in an effort to solve a conundrum that has been vexing traditional media companies for several years: how do you challenge the apparently ingrained concept that online news comes for free?

Yesterday morning Rebekah Brooks, the News International chief executive, released a statement saying that from 1 June it would charge £1 a day, or £2 for a week's subscription to both The Times's website and a Sunday Times site that has yet to launch. "This is just the start," she promised. "These new sites, and the apps that will enhance the experience, reflect the identity of our titles and deliver a terrific experience for readers."

Predictably, most of those users who have become accustomed to accessing Times Online for nothing were unimpressed. "Boo," posted Katey Daley. "I won't pay cause I simply can't be bothered getting out my credit card and typing in all the details."

Others could understand News International's position, a predicament that became more stark with the release of figures last week showing that losses at News International increased to £87.7m in the year to June, from £50.2m in the previous 12 months. "Where else in the internet would you be able to read brilliant articles by A A Gill, Michael Winner, Jeremy Clarkson, Sarah Vine, Matthew Parris, William Rees-Mogg, Dominic Lawson?" posted Peter Hurst, showing an apparent willingness to cough up for his favourites.

Times Online has a unique monthly audience slightly in excess of 20 million. But during a Q&A with readers yesterday, James Harding, editor of The Times, described such users as mere "window shoppers". He said: "Clearly, we are going to lose a lot of passing traffic. We have, like a few other national newspapers, tens of millions of unique users a month. But they are not regular readers. They are more like window shoppers."

News International's move, being watched closely by other newspaper businesses, represents a challenge to the culture of the internet. Michael Wolff, biographer of Mr Murdoch and founder of the news aggregation site, said the media mogul's gamble – which offers free online access to subscribers to the two newspapers – was designed to preserve sales of the print products.

"He does not care about the online business. It's like the old days when we gave away toasters with subscriptions," he said. "They are saying 'Buy my newspaper and you can have online for free. If you don't, I'm going to make the cost of online reading really quite onerous'. Rupert wants be the guy that saved newspapers. He hates the internet."

John Witherow, editor of The Sunday Times, said the launch of the paper's first stand-alone website – which will be more visual and features-led than that of The Times – was not simply an exercise in generating newspaper subscriptions. A carousel of photography and video will direct users to features, and journalists will be encouraged to shoot more video footage. "On a fashion shoot we will go behind the scenes and video it," he said. "We will film Michael Frith painting our arts watercolour profile. It's that kind of thing which enables people to engage more with the content. We happen to think that it is right to charge. We understand that it's a risk and that it will take time and that a lot of people will refuse to pay, but we think a small enough minority will."

Star columnists including Gill and Rod Liddle will answer questions from readers in a Hot Seat debate feature. But don't expect to be able to grill Clarkson. "I don't know about Jeremy, he's so busy filming," said Mr Witherow. "So probably not, to be honest."

Would you pay? readers say no

unsocialist: Personally I will simply read the in-depth stuff in my weekly magazine and find the headlines on the web/TV daily.

jimfred: Charging will only work if everyone does it. There will always be someone who breaks ranks and offers news and views for free.

dennycranewhu: I don't think he'll succeed and I hope he doesn't. But if anyone can make it work, Rupert can.